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On the Romantic Erasure of Jewish Identity, and Other Erotic Sundries

I read an article today by a Jewish woman lambasting a work of romantic fiction written by a Christian woman. The gist of the reviled book is that a Jewish girl is taken under the wing of a concentration camp commandant, they fall in love, and in the end they convert to Christianity and save Jews from the Nazi maw. Something like that.

The reviewer in question was utterly outraged, first that a non-Jew was even writing from the perspective of a Jewish woman; second that any redemption could be had by any Nazi but especially the commander of a concentration camp; three that such dross has a right to be published at all. I disagree, albeit respectfully, with each of these concerns.

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My first and paramount disagreement is that an outsider cannot, ought not write about the perspective of another–in this case, and it is an extreme case, about the seminal tragedy of the Jewish people: the Holocaust. Emotionally, this subject is notable for several reasons, its close proximity to the present day, its enormity, the methodicalness with which it was carried out, the unparalleled historical evidence for its breadth, sadism, and efficiency…No event in recorded history can match the Holocaust in pints of blood or reams of paper. Controversy is inevitable.

That a Jew is insulted, enraged, baffled, betrayed at the sight of a romance set during this time is understandable. I as an outsider in every way, when I put my mind to it, can imagine the intellectual outrage, create my own sense of emotional distress, work up an appetite for blood. Are my emotions a mere echo, a mimicry, a farce of the genuine article? There is no objective way to know. I suspect that the immediacy of my recreation soon wears off, while her emotions linger. I suspect that her reaction is stronger than mine, more concentrated. I suspect that both are personal, although in differing ways. Both are real, in the sense of being experienced, although clearly hers are the more intense. It is a matter of degrees, I think, and not of validity.

And regardless of degree, both require honesty. She needs to be honest in the use of her memory, a tricky device and prone to error, exaggeration, and outright fabrication. I, experiencing second hand, need to be honest in my humility and genuine in my attempt to research and grapple with something outside my immediate sensory experience. Both have their flaws and limitations. Both are acts of constructing order out of chaotic data.

Her criticism strikes at the very heart of what I believe the point of writing is. I approach fiction much like I approach history, as a process by which empathy is had for my fellow man. Rousseau was not wrong in surmising that pitie is a natural part of the human mind, but it dulls in the face of competition, rivalry, jealousy. Sometimes it disappears altogether, at least functionally.

Great fiction (and history in this sense is fiction because the historical narrative is a product of the imagination), effective fiction, is empathetic. It is the author’s admission that his is not the only perspective, that even through his own prejudices and limitations (necessary to the creative process as they are) he can see that there are other stories than his own, other perspectives than the one he assumes to be correct on a daily basis, other modes of thought and being than the ones that he finds comfortable and natural.

It is an imperfect process to be sure. I can never know what it was like to be in the Holocaust, either as guard or as condemned, ditto for growing up in a Jewish family in the wake of that cataclysm. But I can imagine. I can surmise. And I can honestly put myself into the shoes of another, doing my best to see what she sees, breath what she breathes, think what she thinks. In doing so, I will never be able to recreate the objective reality of the past. Fiction cannot do that; history cannot either (nor memory, if we’re being honest). I can, however, recreate at least a semblance of the subjectivity of the human creature.

When done in good faith (and careful research is a prerequisite to this fidelity), fiction is a way for the subjective to bend, expand, look upon itself. In this way our common humanity is better understood–and our differences (in opinion, in custom, in disposition) are made rational, are made understandable to the outsider.

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Now, what of redemption? I should first mention that the Christian idea of redemption makes sense in this context. All can be saved if they only embrace the Truth that is Jesus Christ. In so doing, they shed their pride and thus deserve (earn, are given–depending on your theology) salvation. A counter-intuitive notion, to be sure, and one that Christians have trouble putting into practice (witness the hatred felt towards child molesters, as an example), but an ideal of many Christian denominations it certainly is.

So, that a Christian author would find the idea that a Nazi could be redeemed plausible and indeed quite compelling as an exemplar for the power of God to forgive all his creations, is not an irrational turn of events. Nor is it strange that a Jew would take umbrage at this. The Jewish God is not so loving as the Christian, and the tone of His interaction with the world shifts radically from the Old to the New Testament. The two perspectives are so radically different as to make compromise practically impossible.

Theology aside, I believe that all people deserve redemption in the historical sense of that word. What I mean is, as a historian, it is my duty to throw my imagination into the perspective of anyone that becomes my subject of study, regardless of their thoughts or actions. It is the closest thing I can do to allowing my subject the objectivity–the lack of unconscious or irrationally strong bias–that makes for genuine, honest history, that is to say history done in good faith.

It is in this way that we lose the temptation to grind axes, vomit polemics, or pass vitriol off as scholarship. In this way we judiciously, carefully weave our prejudices into the fabric of the work, balancing them as best we can against whatever facts we unearth. No bias can be totally erased, but it can be tempered. In that equilibrium resides an honest picture of the past–not complete, but a valiant effort in that direction.

Historical redemption is also a humanizing activity. It reminds us, by forcing us to look at the motivations behind what we presently consider the most heinous acts, that it is not a monster we are studying. It is not a demon that has attracted our historical curiosity, who begs for our historical judgment. Our subject is nothing as special as all that. It is merely a man, with a man’s strengths, a man’s motivations, a man’s imperfections.

Morally, it whispers into our presently arrogant ear that we, as humans like once they were, have the same potential for good and for ill, that the actions that we take will have consequences–intended or no–just as theirs did, that the future will judge our actions with as much narrowness of perspective as we now judge our progenitors.

Whatever their reasons were, the Nazis perpetrated the worst slaughter that recorded history has preserved. This should sober us, terrify us to the reality of human motivation: that given enough energy, we can justify anything. Being reminded of that, we of the present should show the caution and restraint so seldom seen by those whom we claim to have bettered. We are our past. Those people were and are us. Their mistakes were ours, the mistakes of the race. Only when we own up to them, our wrong-doings, can we internalize them, learn from them, possibly outgrow them. History is a laboratory experiment 1000 generations running. We are as much lab rats today as in the days of Hammurabi. After so much trial and error, will we ever escape this maze?

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My final quibble is with the idea that such a work as this, being insensitive to a minority community, being historically ignorant, being racist in its erasure of Jewish identity by a Christian one, ought not have the right to be published at all. My gut reaction to such a statement is horror. After all, the first amendment is what allows me to write whatever I want without fear of recourse. It has its limits, libel for instance, but realistically my speech seems freer than at any other time or place in recorded history. The majority will always find ways to silence the minority, but the official response is so ridiculously weak that I have no fear of having the hammer of the law smite me for what I put to print.

The question becomes is that a good thing? The outraged author to whom I am responding says that such fiction as this is dangerous in its ability to nullify the identity of another. She is rightfully concerned that free speech is dangerous. It certainly is. Freedom is fraught with danger. Do the benefits outweigh these?

I am inclined to say yes.

Philosophically, or perhaps politically, a free exchange of ideas seems of genuine practical value, for it–hopefully–results in a weeding out of the less-well-thought-out stuff, and through the continual editorial process of criticism and response, would yield something better. But this seems hard to quantify, or to prove.

I will say that the potential allotted to a people possessed of free speech seems more fraught with peril, but also so much higher, than a people trammeled with the safety of a controlled mind. Strife breeds necessity, and necessity creativity. And there is no place where creativity is more necessary than in the products of the human imagination.

So there it is, a respectful disagreement. Can the internet handle such a thing? …And there I am being self-righteous. We can all breath a collective sigh of relief.

Gone With the Wind, a Commentary

Introduction

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is an American epic, a novel of psychological depth, grand scope, and historical ignorance. It is colloquial in its outlook, national in its effect, and now devoid of its prominence. It is full of tragedy, sacrifice, justice, and profundity of character. And yet it is hardly read in classrooms, hardly talked about in terms of “great American literature.” This, we might reasonably surmise, might have to do with its gargantuan length, but Moby Dick is a long book and its professors abound. No, I suspect the dismissal of Gone With the Wind has to do with its very problematic viewpoint, antithetical to so much that many academics or intellectuals would consider comfortable or inoffensive. It strikes me, however, that great books are not for the faint of heart. They should not be as opium for life’s hardships; they ought to rouse the reader to cope with philosophies he does not espouse, questions he would prefer not to ask; great books should make the reader uncomfortable in their attempt to grapple with life, and, in the end, comfort him that others, too, share in his struggle. In this way, great books shatter the conventions of nationality or race, and remind us of our common humanity. Let us delve into this offensive, uncomfortable, but thoroughly fantastic work of American fiction.

Analysis

Several themes pervade the book: the lost cause of the noble Confederacy; the world fought for, shattered, and annihilated amidst the permutations of history; the ability of the most tenacious, ruthless, practical people to survive regardless of circumstance; the importance of what we today would call genetic predisposition in the makeup of one’s character; the conflict between honor and pragmatism, as well as that between the mask and the real person; the advance of woman’s equality; the misrepresentation of Southern slavery by Northern propaganda; the solipsism of men’s minds…We shall delve into a few choice ones, and leave the reader free to agree, disagree, or abstain–so long as he forms his opinion based on a firsthand sampling of the work, rather than on the Wikipedia article alone.

The first half of the book is dedicated to the prelude and duration of the American Civil War, a conflict that saw the largest number of American dead of any of our wars to date, the vast expansion of Federal power at the expense of the individual states, the ideals of the Declaration of Independence trumping the letters of the Constitution, and–as the focus of this book–the ruination of the Southern Way of Life. Plantations were razed, families traumatized, and an entire economic system was thrown into the void. The fighting itself is mostly relegated to expositional dumps, but it is at least dimly present, if only via juxtaposition, throughout Scarlett’s social machinations.

As the title makes plain, this book is more than a chronicle of the death of the South. It is a lamentation of a social system cast away forever. The characters of the book come to the painful realization that despite their best efforts, their former way of life is dead. They must adapt to a new world, an industrial world, a world of racial equality. Some, like Rhett and Scarlett, adapt ruthlessly and successfully. Others, take Ashley and Frank for example, fail utterly, living their lives as shadows waiting to dissipate or dying in futile attempts to regain a world now lost. This is in large part a story about change and adaptation, about the human desire for things to stand still when they are perceived as pristine (even though this lack of motion always leads to stagnation). It should also be noted that such desire often only comes in hindsight. Scarlett, annoyingly but not without purpose, spends much of her ignorant pre-Reconstruction existence complaining about what we know to be irrelevancies–lacking new dresses, having to care for her child, etc. Indeed, she only comes to realize her love for Tara (her ancestral home) when it is nearly at the furnace’s door.

The impact of nature on a man’s personality plays some psychological role as well. Blacks are generalized as child-like, simple, but also loyal and hard-working. The Irish are considered hot-tempered and good-natured or drunk and foreign, by turns. Southerners consider their pedigree a mite bit superior to their northern counterparts, and that is without mentioning the gradation of perceived quality found in their own rigid socio-economic hierarchy. Men and women, too, have their specific, iron-clad roles to play. All of these characteristics take no regard for a man’s development. They adhere to him at birth. One chief conflict of Scarlett’s life, therefore, is her natural inclinations towards temper, indignation, narcissism, and practicality clashing with the roles and duties thought natural to her class and gender. There is the additional struggle, in her case, between trying to be the daughter her mother raised and falling into the daughter her father sired purely by genetic accident. Her mother counseled kindness and tact; her father acted on impulse and courage. In the end, Scarlett chooses, or falls into, the latter mold. She is more interesting, and more frustrating, for it.

The fall of the Confederacy is enacted in miniature within each character in the book. Scarlett has her external universe ripped from her before the book is half finished; but she is far more devastated by the destruction of her internal cosmos. The disintegration of her mental sun, Ashley, nearly throws her into cosmic chaos, and it is only by gravitating towards the familiar–the pursuit of another man–that she maintains any kind of cohesion. In Rhett as well, we see the collapse of a mental universe, personified in the death of his beloved Bonnie and again in Scarlett’s broken ribs. Unlike his wife, however, Rhett recognizes the finality of the termination and attempts to move on to something else. Ashley thought that his world revolved around Scarlett, and it took the death of Melanie (his wife) for him to realize the warmth he felt was not from Scarlett but from the star of his wife; her death leaves him aimless and dependent upon Scarlett simply through lack of resolve. Finally, it is in Melanie that we see the ideal, a woman who throughout the book maintains her world, right to the end. No doubt is entertained, no misgiving communicated, no dishonestly recognized. In her undoubt, often so contrary to external reality, her internal world finds an undying center of gravity, holding everything in place until her planet withers and dies of its own accord, its natural cycle having come to a close. She is the Confederacy idealized and personified.

Criticism

Like any book of such length (easily stretching to over 1000 pages), Gone with the Wind is possessed both of great strengths and profound weaknesses. Let us do charity to the courageous author and cover the strengths first.

The author has a lot to say, as our thematic analysis ought to have demonstrated. Art need not have a point, but great art must needs be grappled with; and an opponent must have a point of view, so as to provoke a fight from him. This book certainly does. The South is the great protagonist, and the characters–well-formed, realistic, and psychologically profound–take us on a tragic journey through the destruction of that nation. It is the Iliad from the perspective of the Trojans. It thus appeals to that (often and increasingly hypocritical) American sense of rooting for the little guy in the face of overwhelming odds. And the book does not shirk from reminding the reader of the inevitability of the Confederacy’s defeat, noble though their cause was (or thought to be).

The book shines brightest when the author’s themes are voiced by the characters themselves, or through narration that clearly bespeaks the perspective of a single psychology. When Scarlett thinks upon the ruination of Tara and its vibrant, red soil; when Rhett bemoans the idiocy of Southern honor only to spend the last eight months of the war fighting for the Confederacy; when Melanie talks of national honor and the will to persevere, the reader cannot help but find himself at least compelled, if not outright enthralled, by their earnestness, their depth of soul, the reality of their convictions and perspectives.

But because the author has something to say, she sometimes takes it too far, other times loses her balance. After hundreds and hundreds of pages, the reader finds himself fatigued at the repetitious pastoral depictions, the characters reminding us again and again of their various motivations, the minutiae of the lumber business in post-war Georgia… We humbly submit that Mitchell could have done with a vigorous, if understanding, editor, and cut at least a fifth of the work from its final form.

More important than the long-windedness of Gone with the Wind is the historically unbalanced portrayal of Reconstruction and the Southern way of life generally. The book is predominantly concerned with the wealthiest members of Southern society. Therefore, its characters are particularly affected by the defeat of the Confederacy. And when the characters themselves speak of this catastrophe, few problems arise. When, however, the narration takes a step back from the characters and enters a more general tone that fairly can be ascribed to the author herself, the unmerited representations of the North, the ignorance of the dark underbelly of the South, and the polemical attacks upon the Yankee occupation all leave a bad taste in the mouth of one who knows better.

Obviously Reconstruction was imperfect, and obviously both sides acted with less than Christian charity, kindness, or love; but the black and white narration of the author is less easy to stomach when not from the mouth of a character who would have little interest in historical objectivity–and indeed little access to such information as was available in the first decades of the twentieth century. Mitchell spent more than a decade writing this book. It would not have been too much to ask for her to have researched the topic with such thoroughness as to at least lighten the bias against the North. It was still too soon to have expected a positive revision of Reconstruction, but Mitchell’s insight into the depth of her characters’ minds failed her when she turned her attention to men who actually lived, who actually acted, and who actually failed.

This flaw proves nearly fatal to the work when it comes to the depiction of black people. Not that blacks have no representation in the book; several prominent, if secondary, characters are black. The problem is that the book goes to great lengths to make slavery seem the preferable option to emancipation. We never meet a black person happy to have his freedom. The only blacks with sustained speaking roles are “house slaves,” who would have been comfortable enough on a plantation with “decent” white folks overseeing it. We never really get a psychologically deep or honest portrayal of what the house slaves refer to as a “field nigger,” one who broke his back picking cotton, tending crops, doing all the work that, halfway through the narrative, the main characters find themselves (despite their social status) forced to do.

Indeed, the “free-issue” blacks are generally depicted as unreliable, lazy, brutal. And if they are not looked upon with scorn, it is with pity, as political pawns of the nefarious and money-grubbing scalawags and Republicans. Again, when a character speaks of free-issues or Republicans with scorn, derision, or pity, little issue can be found. Of course they would feel that way. But the fact that over the course of 1000 pages the author found no room for even a hint at the brutalities of slavery, or of the benefits of emancipation; that she never addresses the hypocrisy of a society that fights for “freedom” on the backs of the unfree; that she commits all her important black characters to unquestioning loyalty to the social system destroyed by the Civil War…these are not mere literary flaws of structure, pacing, or characterization. They are historically disingenuous, morally repugnant, deeply unsettling sins from an author who clearly researched her subject matter.

Most damning of all, her portrayal of blacks perpetuates conventional barriers between supposedly superior and supposedly inferior branches of humanity. The most fully formed black characters, Mammy for instance, show a depth of understanding and a preternatural loyalty to their masters. But at the same time, the white characters never come to the realization that they are the equals of the blacks. Their darker counterparts are loyal, yes, but ever childlike. They are strong to be sure, but only in the way a horse is strong. The loyalty and strength of the blacks is not equivalent to the white examples of those characteristics. The white characters are conveniently discriminating in their praise and defamation of the black characters, and the detached narrator falls prey to this discrimination when she admits of no free black who even suggests that he is equal to his former masters, nor of a single white character who even whispers the possibility. That she was so thoughtful in every other respect, concerning the history and psychology of her characters, as to completely overlook this severing of man from man, so blatant and so cruel, is strange indeed. It bespeaks the enfeebling power of mental prejudice, that wellspring from which our ideas flow, and by which they  are channeled.

Finally, one must ask the question: did the Old Guard of the South really suffer irrevocable defeat at the hands of the invading North? When the Republicans ran out of steam by the 1870s, the Democrats regained supreme control of their states. Blacks were at first hampered and then later all but completely barred from the political process. Indeed, even in the 1930s, when the book was published, blacks–especially in the South–were anything but equal to their white counterparts. And we should all be well aware of the vastly improved, but still irritatingly imperfect, status of blacks in America today. A foreign observer would have noticed large differences between 1860 and 1870 to be sure, but to say that the social hierarchy that ruled the antebellum South was annihilated never to return seems something of an overstatement, one that men like Booker T. Washington certainly would have taken issue with.

Conclusion

The skill of Mitchell’s writing, the depth of her characterizations, the variety of her settings, the sweeping scope of her narrative ultimately overcome these shortcomings. And we are left with a deeply troubling but deeply profound piece of American literature. It is the supreme accomplishment of the Southern Mind, a work as grandiose and hypocritical, as passionate and loyal, as delusional and bitter as the people from whence it came. While we of the North might with justice criticize the particular faults of our Southern compatriots, we would do well to remember that we share the same blood, the same common humanity. Their flaws are our flaws, their strengths our strengths. The manifestations change; the people remain remarkably alike.

It is a pity, then, that this challenging work seems thoroughly unrepresented in literary circles. In some respects this is not surprising. Consider the movement to extirpate each instance of “nigger” from Huck Finn, for example, and one quickly realizes that challenging literature is not popular. No, society seems to prefer literature that pretends to challenge, that deals with issues that the majority is comfortable talking about. Such literature deals in platitudes, not in profundity.

The Liberation Narrative: Django: Unchained and Spartacus Compared

Django: Unchained has been criticized, not without merit, as being more a white man’s black vengeance movie, rather than simply a black vengeance movie. The black characters require the white characters in order to gain their freedom. They require them in order to reap vengeance for the wrongs and injustices committed against blacks by whites. In a word, it is less a movie about black empowerment and more a movie about white guilt. Whites perpetrated the injustice of slavery, and whites therefore are required in order to achieve rectification.

Having seen it for the first time since it was in theaters, I got to thinking; how accurate is this claim? what does that say about American slavery and how it is viewed today? Indeed, is such a criticism really something we ought to be critical about at all? To answer these questions, I decided to come at it indirectly by first looking at another movie centered around a narrative of slavery and liberation: Stanley Kubrick’s Spartacus.

Spartacus is a Greek slave brought up in bondage, trained as a gladiator, and who, for a few short years, led an army of liberated slaves through a series of astounding, if ultimately futile, victories against not a few Roman legions. It is a classic story and a classic film. One man, fueled by a zealous desire to claim his birthright, leads rabble against professionals, comes to grips with them manfully and successfully, almost outwits his opponents–only to be betrayed at the last moment. Trapped in southern Italy, he and his men are cut down by the combined arms of several Roman legions. He is captured, although his identity is never established with certitude. He is crucified with the survivors of his rebellion, one of thousands of broken exemplars, warnings to Rome’s myriads of enchained subjects of the terrible price to be paid for insurrection. He is a martyr for the cause of liberty, and his sweeping narrative is both suitably tragic and inspiring.

Django, on the other hand, is very much a personal narrative, not something on the grand scale. There is no talk of the end of slavery, there is no mass rebellion against the established Order; there is only one black man, his burning desire to free his enslaved wife, and a German bounty hunter. This German, Dr. King Shultz, gives Django the ability to fulfill his lover’s quest by freeing him, training him in the art of killing, and setting in motion a chain of events that leads to the eventual freedom of the two chief black characters–at the expense of his own Teutonic existence, alas.

So the whole of Spartacus is a sprawling historical epic pontificating, nay yearning for the death and burial of a most brutal human institution (“2000 years before it finally would die” as the opening narrator puts it). It allows a slave to drag himself up from slavery by the brawn of his own lashed back. Django, so this comparison suggests, is a narrow romance set in the Antebellum South, wherein a helpless black man is plucked by his white angel in the dead of winter, warmed by his thirst for vengeance, his love for his wife; and sharpened to a ferocious point by the tutelage of his Germanic liberator. The former film treats the slave as an equal albiet subjugated person, able to grasp at his freedom with his own hands, to fight for it with his own strength and ingenuity. The latter film sees the slave as perhaps equal philosophically, but certainly unable to make any use of his possible freedom without the aid of a charitable white character, deigning to get his hands dirty in the aid of those less fortunate.

(How nice of him.)

And yet, what is most striking to me is that Spartacus loses. Indeed, the status quo is restored, the slaves remain as such, and that’s pretty much the end of it. Historically, slavery was never seriously questioned until the late 18th century. It was taken as a given, a necessary economic brutality, or most grotesquely (from our perspective) as a fact of Nature. Look up Aristotle’s defense of slavery. It is difficult to stomach. The film admits this sad fact from the beginning. The narrator, as mentioned, laments that the true death of slavery would have to wait two millennia. From the onset, then, Spartacus is a tale of defeat. Spartacus, like Troy’s Hector, is the man we root for and the man fated to lose.

So, Spartacus loses. Does Django do any better? Within the bounds of the narrative, yes. He gets the girl, kills pretty much every evildoer in site, and the movie ends in triumph. But in a larger sense, he still exists in a world very much in a hostile disposition towards his race. The events of Django happen a half decade before the Civil War. How fruitful will his New Life be, even with papers authenticating both his and his wife’s freedom? Consider. In the North there is no slavery, but there is still a social stigma attached to being of African descent. Emancipation is nearly ten years off; Jim Crow a generation or two from casting blacks again into the role of helot and outcast; and Civil Rights a century from bursting forth at long last. So does not Django really end on the same downer as that of Spartacus? Is not the status quo in both films equally unassailable?

I am compelled to answer in the definitely negative. The rebellion of Spartacus was overwhelmed by a world that did not even consider the possibility of slavery being an evil. Go ahead and watch that movie again; I don’t think there is a single Roman character that actually sides with Spartacus on moral grounds. A few help him out of practical or political reasons, but no one seems interested in the gospel of equality. Rousseau is not even a sparkle on the horizon. Historically, again, no one questioned the institution of slavery until very recently. Enter Django’s German liberator: Dr. King Schultz. He begins by purchasing Django, purely for the benefit of the slave’s knowledge of a few wanted men the bounty hunter is pursuing. He expresses no love of slavery but of necessity must keep Django in bondage, he says, so as to guarantee the latter’s aid. When the deed is done and the bounties are dead, Schultz frees Django and partners up with him, “Killin’ white folks for money.” Upon hearing Django’s story of his lost wife Broomhilda (not Brunhilda), the Doctor is compelled (what German would pass an opportunity to aid a real life Siegfried?) to help Django get his lady love back. He meets his end when he opts to shoot in the chest the sadistic planter who owns Broomhilda, rather than shake hands with him. “I could not resist,” he says, smiling, before he himself is cut in half.

Embodied in this German is the idea of Hope, and indeed of Progress. Yes, Django is a “white man’s black vengeance” flick, but in the American context it could not, and indeed ought not be any other way. Schultz is a white man, part (whether he likes it or not) of the established social order. This white man, however, recognizes the evils inherent in the institution of slavery, and does everything in his power to help a single individual rise to take on the burden of liberty manfully, and who dies for what he now professes to be the Truth of things. He is the domineering majority’s shame at its hypocrisy and brutality; he is it looking inwards at itself, realizing that something must needs be done; he is the first inklings of that Action, that Progress. He is the Hope that America might, one day, earn its birthright of freedom by allowing equal opportunity and equality under the law to all its citizens.

Embodying those noble things, he makes Django a quintessentially American narrative of slave liberation. America is in a somewhat unique position viz. slavery. It was founded as a nation upon the soil of liberty, and yet sowed stones in that fertile field by retaining the antique (but industrially vicious) institution of slavery. Much of its economy relied upon cheap, reliable slave labor. And many of its leaders owned dozens if not hundreds of these unfree men. This led to moral outrage on the part of some–for the first time in history. It also led to painfully concocted scientific theories of racial hierarchy on the part of those seeking to defend slavery in the wake of Equality’s philosophic victory. Civil war, decades of black inequality despite their liberation, the Civil Rights movement, and our current climate of white guilt followed in their turn.

The point is, America criticized itself for owning slaves. It fought itself over that issue, cloaked as it was in the language of union and states rights. It freed its slaves in law, but kept them in social chains. And so, with stops and trammels that are shameful in their own way, it slowly integrated its slave population into the often unwilling majority. That is something that to my knowledge is without historical precedent. Egypt did not free its slaves. Sparta did not free its helots. Rome did not break down the institution of Latifundia, its great landed estates that relied on the labor of the unfree. Spain continued to reap the benefits of slave labor in Latin America until those colonies liberated themselves.

It is true that France abolished slavery in its Caribbean possessions, then reinstated it, then abolished it, then reinstated it, again and again as its government shifted hands. It is also true that England outlawed the slave trade in 1807 and backed its words with the guns of its uncontested navy. But these laws affected the colonies of these two great empires, rather than their national soil. Slavery as an institution never took root in the patria of either France or England. Only in America were slaves an integral part of domestic life. Only in America was that institution for the first time seriously questioned, weakened, and ultimately, after the slow triumph of the Civil Rights movement, abolished. Other counties went through, or are still reeling from, similar social processes, notably Brazil; but it was in the United States of America that, without precedent, such a process of liberation began.

Django embodies that American historical development. Schultz is the majority trying to make amends for its sins against Equality. Django is the minority taking the reins of its destiny into its own hands after it has first been taught how to be free. After all, it seems reasonable to assert that being brought up a slave habituates a man to a different mode of thinking and action than does a liberal upbringing. This must be broken and replaced. This education is the responsibility of the liberators, so as to make good and equal citizens of those it once held in chains. That is integration. Blacks need not “act like whites,” whatever that really means, but they should have the same economic, intellectual, legal opportunities as their former masters. We all must be educated so as to be responsible citizens.

So, Django is a more heartening slave narrative because it is a success. It is a success because someone within the machinery of enslavement actually realizes the evil of the institution and tries to do something about it. And in doing something about it, that white “liberator” embodies the American experiment in the enfranchisement and integration of its former slave population, a process fraught with difficulty, with setback, with brutality, with inhumanity, but ultimately, with a degree of kindness, of duty, of self-appraisal that is almost without historical precedent.

Would that Livy could have been so critical of Rome as Lincoln was of America!